Saturday, August 31, 2013

Oliver Wendell Bones & Ralph 'Where's Waldo' Emerson

 The next week colored papers started appearing on everyone’s desks about new Teacher Coordinator position.  Documents outlined the importance of an “overseer.”  Somebody with “wisdom” and “experience” who could “mentor” inexperienced educators… a real “master teacher.”
Nobody bought it.
 Mad Irish Dave took exception, “These flyers are shining examples of excrement!  What’s a …MAAAA-ster TEEE-cher?”  He held the paper up to the light.  “Looks expensive… all these fancy quotation marks followed by pretty quotes from dead wankers with multiple names like Oliver Wendell Bones and Ralph ‘Where’s Waldo’ Emerson.”  He folded the paper sideways into an airplane.  “Worth nothing but two kicks to me head,” and he flew the paper plane across the room, crashing into the wall and dropping on the floor.
 Personally, I think Flintstone said it best… “Da Faq is dis?”
 None of them saw what was happening, the cold calculation involved.  The documents were basic education articles outlying school structure.  But one was a staff directed memo stating the need for this Coordinator to be a teacher promoted within the organization.  Believe me, nobody wanted the job.  Nobody, but Wee Scott Bob
 You should have seen him prancing his thin little legs around the office like a show pony.  Going desk to desk.  Asking if ya’d seen the memo.  What do ya think?  Cause me’d be perfect for da job.  If ya’ don't mind.  Me’d do a bang-up job.  If ya don't want it for yerself?
 Nobody wanted it.  (Then again, maybe no one could understand Wee Scott Bob)
 So when the staff meeting rolled around that week and all the usual articles of business were finished, what the Admiral called: Bovine Scatology! 
We finally got around to business ‘off the books,’ and everybody saw it coming.
“Ahem,” Bob cleared his throat and was about to stand up when I beat him to it.
“I’ve got something!” I said.
Bob glared at me but sat back down.
 I explained that lately I’d been getting these articles on my desk for lesson plan suggestions about how to be a better teacher.  Suggestions to use Youtube more often in class and how to access the grammar games site… fun projects, really… but what is the outcome of this?  Never do any of these suggestions state a specific skill you want the students to learn.  There is no… ‘End Game.’
I looked at the Admiral and he was nodding.
 “Furthermore,” I said.  “There is the suggestion that a coordinator position be created to help mentor teachers.  A leader.  Someone we could all believe in.”
The Admiral agreed.  It would be a good idea.
I could see Bob squirming .  He wanted to jump out of his seat.
“Actually,” I said.  “I’ve been thinking about it and I’d like to make a nomination.”
Bob’s eyes burst out of his head.  He was practically bouncing toward me.
“I’ve known this teacher for a while now and I think he’s an excellent person.  Completely trustworthy and thoughtful, he’s exactly the kind of person I want representing me.”
Bob sat still and crossed his arms, a complete look of satisfaction dreamily spread on his face.
“And who is it?”  The Admiral asked.
“I nominate, Scoops.”
Bob’s face dropped like a turd in the toilet.
 Bob leaped to his feet.  “Admiral, let’s talk about this a little.  As you know, I’ve been the one leaving lesson plans on the other lad’s desks.  I have the ideas.  I have the experience to lead.  It was my idea to create this Coordinator position.”
“Actually Bob,” I said.  “The Teacher Coordinator position was my idea, isn’t that right Admiral?”
“What?”  Bob glared.
The Admiral nodded.  “It’s true.  Mr. Hartenstein emailed the suggestion to me about two weeks ago.  We’ve been discussing it via email ever since.”
“Many of us our involved.”
Mad Irish Dave nodded, “Yeah, I stayed out of this fray… too much work for the likes of me.  I second Scoops.   He’ll do a bang up job.”
Bob was incredulous.  He started stammering, “But… it was my idea.”
The room filled with laughter.
“What was your idea Bob?”  The Admiral asked.  “You weren’t even cc’d on the emails.”
Bob sat down and stared at the floor as Scoops stood up.  “Thank you, everyone.  I’ll do my best.”
After the meeting, the bus ride home through the desert was the best I’d felt in Saudi.  I could have flown over the dunes.  It had been a lot of work, but so worth it.  This quickly changed when we arrived at the compound and found Martin. He had flown in special from Bahrain.  There was an emergency situation.  Mad Dog had been arrested in Riyadh.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guillotine Man

 All day long I wanted to talk to Mad Dog but there wasn’t the chance.  I kept going over and over in my head what I wanted to say, but it kept coming out wrong.  
 What was I supposed to do, walk up to him and say, “I met this little girl who saw you crying by the sea? “  He would have thought I was nuts, and coming from Mad Dog that’s saying a lot.  
 Or worse, a complete weird-o!
 So I did something even weirder and followed him around most of the day.  I stood three guys back in the coffee line while the dark skinned Lebanese with thin black mustache and little white apron dropped sugar cubes into the brown sludge, but Mad Dog seemed fine.
 In the cafeteria while the Saudi men sat at the tables scooping fistfuls of Kepsa rice into their mouths stopping only to pick their toes and belch, Mad Dog took a table with Flintstone and Scoops and talked deep sea diving and camel racing in the Rub al-Khali.  
 I don’t know why I wanted to dive into this person.  What I hoped to find while swimming into his depths.  He was just a man like any of the other men who taught these rough classes and rode through the desert every day for a dollar in his pocket.  Perhaps that was it.  After all the adventures of travel end, the greatest exploration is into the minds and lives of people.  What are their motives?  Their worries?  Their dreams?  How do they make us realize our own?
 These were my exact thoughts sitting alone at a round table in the cafeteria when suddenly I heard a voice behind me.  “Aye Boy-yo!  Feeling a bit lonesome now are we?”  Wee Scott Bob placed his tray next to mine and sat down.  “I was wondering,” he said, “did you get the lesson plan I put on your desk this morning?”
 I loosened my necktie and sat back.  There were four hours of teaching after lunch and wasn’t about to give ‘Mr. Welcome to Saudi Arabia’ even an ounce of my time.  I was about to tell him to go hump a camel when he said, “Thing is, I know you got it Boy-yo, cause me seen ya toss it in the rubbish bin.” 
Wouldn’t you know it?  Wee Scott Bob had been following me.
 I spoke first.  “Here’s a question for you, Bob.  What makes you think a guy like me, needs any teaching advice from a guy like you?”
Wee Scott coughed up a laugh.
“I saw the article.  What was the title?  How to Build Confidence in Arab Speakers through Vocabulary Games… something like that?  Is that what these guys need: Word Searches and Hang Man?  Really, Bob?  Why not just play Guillotine Man?  
Bob was furious.  Eyes blazing.  Festers of blotchy red flesh surrounded his neck.  A thin vein in the top of his forehead throbbed.  He gripped his fork like a dagger and for a split-second I wondered whatever happened to those happy little white plastic picnic forks the cafeteria started the semester with?  When did they switch to these pointy metal ones.  Bob got up.  “You just be careful Boy-yo, or you’ll be on the chopping block next.”
He picked up his tray and walked to the other side of the cafeteria where Hassan and the Admiral were sitting.  I saw him take a seat and begin laughing like a complete psychopath, as if he hadn’t been contemplating stabbing my eyes out with a table utensil thirty seconds earlier.  How do people do that?  Shake off the most powerful and vile set of emotions one second to embrace the most genteel and jovial affections the next?  Perhaps I was following the wrong man?  It was then I looked over and Mad Dog was long gone.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Valley of Diamonds

 "Despair fell upon me as I gazed around and realized that I was desolate."  -Sinbad the Sailor, Second Voyage.  One-Thousand and One Arabian Nights

There is a little girl in a little yellow dress that watches as I run around the compound.  She is not like the boys who throw bottles at my feet or the others who sling stones.  She stays off to the side, hidden between two cars on her stoop.  She is only a glimpse I catch out the corner of my eye as I pass.  
 Waiting for the boys to leave, she jets out into the street and picks up a shard of glass, holding it up to the sun.  The silver light shines against her face and she is transfixed.  Then suddenly in a swift motion, she hurls the glass against the compound wall, shattering it into a million tiny pieces and runs away.
 It’s been months now, and I see her every day.  Watching me.  Waiting until I am around the corner so that it is safe.  But today I don’t make the turn.  Today I lay in wait.  When I see her dash for the glass, I race back to catch her in the act.
 “Hello,”  I put out my hands in whispers to show I wasn’t a beast.  “It’s okay.  Don’t be afraid.”
“Afraid?  I’m not afraid.  Why should I be afraid of you?”
Like a man falling from a great height, I must have splattered against the ground.  The little girl’s English was stunning.
“Who…?  What…?  Are you?”  I asked.
“I am Fatima, and you are in my house.”
I was shocked.  Was this a mirage?  Had I passed through some ancient oasis into another world?  How could it be that this little filthy girl without any shoes was speaking to me?
“I beg to differ,” I countered.  “I live here too.  This is my home as well.”
Fatima looked at me puzzled like I was a shard of glass held up to the sun.
 “And how did you learn English so well?”
“Fool!” she scowled.  “My mother taught me.”
I laughed.  “Your mother must be very clever.”
“More clever than you.  Who runs in the hot sun?  A fool, that’s who!”
Surprise gave way to dismay.  Desert or not, I would not be spoken to this way by a child.
 I turned to leave.  What good would come speaking to a rude Arabian child?  But then she spoke again, her voice dropping in humble tenor.  “May I ask you a question?”
Leaning down, sweat dripping from my chin, I said she could ask me anything she wanted.
“Why does a man… throw a diamond into the sea?”
I looked at this little child’s face.  Pig-tailed hair wild in knots.  Sand caked and dried on her cheeks.  Eyes black as the al-Hajar al-Aswad stone of Mecca.  I asked her to explain.
 Fatima said that all her life she had been searching for the Valley of Diamonds.  Her mother had read the story in the Arabian Nights, from Scheherazade’s 549th night with the great Sultan, which if he didn’t like the story he would cut off her head at dawn… the tale told of Sinbad, the great sailor, who on his second voyage lost his crew and was abandoned on a island inhabited by giant birds… Rochs, they are called… who feed upon snakes big enough to swallow elephants, and who guard a treasure of a million shinning diamonds on the valley floor.
“I know the story child,” I said.  “Go on.”
 Fatima nodded and said then that I must know how Sinbad tied himself to a Roch and stole the diamonds and returned to Baghdad a rich man.  She loved this story so much, she asked her mother if it were true, and her mother said, “Go find the valley for yourself.”  So Fatima came outside to look, but no diamonds could be found. 
“There was only you.  A mad fool running in circles with shinning objects at your feet, but when I held them up to the sun I saw they were only glass.”
I agreed.  They were only glass
“So I wanted to give up,” Fatima said, “but then I saw another man who looks just like you.  White skin like a devil.  Eyes blue as the Jeddah sky.  I saw him by the waters on the sands.  It was morning and my mother had taken me to bathe.  The man was crying and out of his eyes came a diamond.”
 “How did you know it was a diamond?”
Fatima smiled.  “The way the light shined against it.  Even from far away, I saw the light and knew.”
“What did the man do?”
“He stared at it a long time in his hands, then he stood and threw it into the sea.”
Fatima paused to question her own words.
“What kind of man does that?  What man throws a diamond into the sea?”
I told her that I didn’t know.
“You should,” she explained.  “He is your friend.”
“My what?”
“Your friend.  I have see you speaking to him.”
I looked at this queer little girl in the yellow dress with her stories of Scheherazade and Sinbad and the Valley of Diamonds.  “What do you mean… where?”
Fatima pointed, “There, around the corner.”  And with that she took my hand and led me away, around the mosque and past the row of waiting shoes, around the exercise room that would never be finished to a house in the compound I knew very well.
“Here, the man that threw the diamond into the sea lives here.  He is your friend, yes?”
I looked up at Mad Dog’s house. 
“Or maybe not,” the little girl laughed.  “Maybe you don’t know him at all, fool!”
She let go of my hand and skipped away.
“My father is calling, I must go.”
“Your father?”
“Yes, you know him too.  He is Abdullah Mohammed al-Farquah, and he will be moved by no man.”
At that, Fatima ran into the main office and slammed shut the door.  I turned and looked at Mad Dog’s house.  A diamond?  Things were about to get interesting…

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Boom! Boom! Scoops the American Terrorist

 A couple of days after Wee Scott Bob drew a line in the sand,  I was getting on the morning bus and Scoops was telling a story that I just couldn’t believe.  There had been a fire in his apartment the night before, a suspicious bag found, and a plot to blow up the mosque.  Scoops, this mild mannered surfer kid from Northern California, was suspected of being a terrorist.
 It’s funny.  Any story in the desert is worth telling.  It’s not that there’s no other entertainment here… well, that’s certainly true.  But it’s more about the heightening of senses.  When the landscape is barren and all color is gone.  When the endless earth and sky seem upside-down and one day bleeds into the  next with never a seasonal change save a check on the calendar, then stories are all you have. 
 Like the time Mad Dog was walking to the store and the car full of Saudi boys ran him off the road.  Then they circled back and raced right toward him, one boy leaning all the way out the window trying to whack off his head with a scimitar. 
Mad Dog said later, “He must have thought I was a mailbox.”
 Or the time it rained and flash floods swept through the area and we ran in the dune puddles, leaping and screaming under the street lamps like children at the ocean.  Then in the morning beneath the bridges, the torrential waves lifted the garbage and swept it out to sea.
 There were many stories like that, little instances that a traveler would carry with him for a lifetime, but what happened to Scoops, that was different.  That tells you something about the man and the people that surround him.
 Scoops is one of my best friends in Saudi.  Sure, he’s an American like me.  Yeah, he grew up in a little logging town near the Redwoods and surfed and ran track and played on the basketball team.  We have an easy time of it chatting back and forth.
 When Scoops was seventeen his father who was the town drunk, died face down on a park bench and that’s when Scoops decided it was time to leave home for good.  He packed a bag and hoped a flight to Vietnam and bought a motorcycle and traveled up and down the South China Sea, stopping in Da Nang and Hoi An and all the way to Saigon.  It’s amazing to think a kid at seventeen had that kind of fortitude.  I know, because when I was eighteen, I left to play basketball in China a year before the Tiananmen Square Massacre. 
 Everything about Scoops is original.  He started teaching in Vietnam without a high school diploma, earning his GED online.  Then he did correspondence courses at a community college while continuing to teach in Vietnam and finally graduated from an America college without ever stepping foot on U.S. soil.
 From there he went to Korea where he taught a year and saved money and then to a year teaching in Japan where he fell in love with a little architecture major from the village of Sho-gen who liked his 6 foot 3 wingspan and slow surfer drawl and didn’t mind that his shoulders slouched or that he dragged his feet when shuffling around like a human ice cream scoop.  She especially didn’t mind, that he had dreams of making documentary films.
 So Scoops returned to Vietnam to begin the process of making a movie there.  While motorcycling, down the coast, he’d come into contact with dozens of vets who had returned to Vietnam to live and work as civilians. 
These were U.S. servicemen who had seen the horrors of war, who had committed atrocities in the name of American freedom, and who basically couldn’t live with themselves anymore. So they returned to build hospitals out of mud and become aid workers in the jungle and teachers in thatched huts. 
Scoops began to interview them, to record their stories, to give them a voice.  He said he saw the beauty in these impossible men who had spent years trying to make amends for sins they committed.  Listening to him speak about the project, about the hours of footage he already had, made me absolutely respect and love this guy.
 Of course, genius doesn’t always translate.  When Scoops arrived in Saudi with his scraggily beard and radical ideas, he was quickly labeled by the other teachers. 
“Yo, money got his head screwed on backward,” Flintstone cracked.  “Turn your back on Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam gonna bite you in the butt.”
Mad Irish Dave was more direct, pointing at Scoops’ shaggy head and beard, “He looks like a blood jihadist.”
 So last night when Scoops got back to the compound, he noticed a funny smell in his apartment.  This is a guy who’s been through the fish markets of Chagalchi Pusan and the whore slums of Saigon.  Weird smells aren’t anything new.
But this seemed strange, something inside the walls, something electrical.  So he went down to the main compound office to inquire with Abdullah, the bull-headed manager.  But Abdullah moves for no man, and that particular night Abdullah and all his girth was watching Saudi Arabia vs. Bahrain in soccer and no wild pack of jackals could drive his girth away from the TV.  So Scoops went back to his apartment and decided to come back after evening prayers.
 Later that night Scoops returned still complaining about an apartment smell, but this time the thick headed Abdullah was watching Egyptian soap operas.  You wouldn’t believe how addicting these Egyptian soaps are!  In this particular episode, a poor family has a wretched daughter gathering water with her head uncovered, “Stone her!  Stone her!”  Abdullah cried.
So Scoops looked at Abdullah and Abdullah looked at Scoops.
Nothing.
 So Scoops walks back to sit in his room and wait.   He’s not there five minutes when suddenly the circuit breaker in his apartment explodes.  Flashes of red and orange fire balls are shooting out of his kitchen wall toward the gas oven.  Scoops has only seconds to react, leaping up and racing from the apartment, sprinting down the stairs across the compound, grabbing Abdullah and screaming, “Fire!  Fire!  Fire!”
But Saudi is mounting an attack against Bahrain.  It’s the waning seconds of injury time.  Saudi has a corner kick, the balls goes up…  just as Scoops yanks out the TV cord.
“Fire!” he points at his apartment.  “Fire!”
So with the deliberation of a thousand morning suns, Abdullah slowly rises and begins to make his laboring way toward the door, glancing one last time at the black TV screen with a heavy sigh.
 A few minutes later when they reach the apartment, Abdullah nearly loses his mind.  The whole inside of the kitchen has turned black.  Burnt walls.  The stove is on fire.  The refrigerator is melting like a cube of ice.  Now Abdullah is screaming.  He is praying to Allah. 
“Oh Allah the great!  Oh Allah the most kind!”
But Scoops is looking around.  He finds the main electrical circuit and shuts off the power.  Crisis solved.  The flame burns itself completely out:  Poof!
 Now Scoops is looking at Abdullah and Abdullah is looking at Scoops, and here comes the English.
“Oh my friend… Uh, I didn’t know what you were saying… Uh, I didn’t understand.”
Scoops looks around at his burned up apartment and says, “I need a new place.  Now.”
So Abdulla who will move for no man put Scoops up in a new place.  Only problem is it’s across the compound and there is no one to help.  Abdullah will not budge, and Scoops starts packing and moving by himself.
 Suitcases and boxes of dishes and silverware and the small wooden desk and his camera and computer and one by one they all made the trip, moving a little at a time, making tiny piles of possessions in little islands then moving them gradually inside the new place.   He had to do it this way or the children in the compound would have robbed him blind. 
What Scoops forgot though, was one small leather satchel, which he happened to leave right next to the mosque by accident.  So… while he’s inside his new apartment, here comes the nightly call to prayer and here comes the muslims.  One by one they emerge:  Construction workers who should have finished the exercise room months ago.  The laundry man whose clean clothes come back twice as dirty.  The grocer who scowls each time you buy bread.  The furniture store seller covered in dust.  The porcelain toilet salesman smelling of  Windex. They all came, wrapped in their shawls dragging their sandals… but instead of going into the mosque, they gathered around Scoops’ bag.
 Something is wrong.  Allah most high, something is amiss.  Allah be kind, something is not right.  There next to the mosque, is an unidentified bag.  It must be a bomb.
For over an hour the men surrounded it.   Mohammed thought to poke it with a stick, Basim to cover it with bricks.  Abdul-Azis said a car should be parked beside it in case of detonation… later he came up with the idea of putting an upside-down bathtub over it… this caused lots of talk until it was discovered the toilet salesman had suddenly vanished back home to his Windex and his wife. 
Finally, a decision was made.  Abdullah said it should be opened.
“Open it?  Are you mad?  Are you insane?  It was obviously left here by the American, he is angry because he thinks we tried to burn down his apartment.  This is his revenge.  Have you not seen how angry Americans become?  They invade for no reason.  They commit terrible sins without recourse.”
But Abdullah, who wouldn’t be moved, had the loudest voice.  He called for the little metal toolbox to be brought, and then, with shaky screwdriver in one hand, ball peen hammer in the other, he approached the small leather satchel saying, if he died, he would go straight to paradise, straight to the virgins, straight to Allah.
 Now, at this exact moment, Scoops was in his new apartment getting settled when he suddenly realized the papers he meant to grade were not there.  Racking his brains, he tried to remember where his school bag was.  Then it came to him.  He left it at the mosque. 
So he went down to retrieve it, but when he got there, a large crowed was gathered in a circle staring at the curb. 
Something must be wrong.  A car accident?  A heart attack?  Scoops got closer and closer, putting his hands on men’s shoulders as he passed.  Each man instantly dropping to the ground in fear.  “Allah be merciful.  Allah be sacred.  Allah be…”
“Hey! Scoops bellowed from the center of the group.  “You found my bag!”
A terrible wailing cry came from all the dozens of men in the group.  They leapt to their feet in terror.  They ran in different directions screaming.  Bouncing into one another.  Tripping over their own feet.  Falling and screaming and putting hands up to shield their eyes.
Scoops, undaunted, picked up the satchel and unzipped the top.  “See,” he pulled out the paper contents.  “Homework!  I’ve got papers to grade.”
Abdullah, whose enormous fat frame had not allowed him the privilege of spry escape, lay prostrate on the ground with fingers from each hand jammed into his ears, staring up at Scoops with one squinting eye.
“No Boom!  Boom!”
“No Boom!  Boom!”
Scoops walked back to his new apartment while the men collected themselves and went back into the main office for lemon tea and Egyptian soap operas, and no one spoke of it again.  No one, until now.